ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Sometimes, she wondered how much more she could stand.
She wondered how kids could be so cruel, why it mattered so much to them that she was a little overweight, why that was some reason to hate, some reason to harm her, belittle and bully her.
Kassandra Dean of Rio Rancho tried to keep what she endured to herself. She would show up at school drenched in gallons of water or soda or spit from encounters with her tormentors at the bus stop, and she would say nothing.
|Help for Kassandra
Carwash and rummage sale to raise money to help defray costs for Kassandra Dean’s treatment, 7 a.m. to noon Saturday, DR Horton sales offices, 4400 Alameda NE.
“I was already the Fat Kid,” Dean, 18, said. “I didn’t want to also be the Tattletale Kid.”
She had been a small, slender girl until fourth grade, but something happened. The weight came on quickly. In fourth grade, she had a group of friends, but even they picked on her mercilessly because of her weight.
“I would let them,” she said. “Because I thought this was the way to fit in.”
That year, her “best friend” led a group of kids in assaulting her on the school bus. As Dean walked down the aisle to take a seat, they surrounded her and shoved her back and forth. She didn’t fight back.
“I’m a sweet kid, not a fighter,” she said. “I don’t want to get physical with people. Violence isn’t the answer.”
The bus driver finally stopped the attack. As far as Dean knows, the kids received no consequences.
In middle school, she became a loner, ate lunch alone, walked to and from school alone. If no one could see her, no one could hurt her.
But the bullying continued.
“I coped with it,” she said. “I got it in my head that’s how it would always be, so I needed to make myself a stronger person so I could learn to take it.”
She became stronger through the barrages of “fat girl” taunts, through threats of being pushed down the steps when she was in a wheelchair with a broken leg, through class picture day when one kid doused her with iced tea.
In ninth grade, she took a longer route home from the bus stop to avoid the house of one boy who threatened to turn the water hose on her as she passed.
She was about 200 pounds and 5-foot-4, but she felt like she must be 400 pounds.
When her tormentors started targeting her younger brother, her secret hell was revealed. Dean’s mother, Jennifer Dean, moved her to a different school where she found a few friends, real friends.
In high school, she even had a crush on a boy.
“He thought I was pretty,” she said. “But he also thought I was too big. He told me he would be embarrassed for his friends to see me with him.”
His words crystallized every horrid moment up until then.
“It was hard,” she said. “That’s what society says. Look at the magazines, and it’s always the skinny girls. It‘s like you can have someone you care about and like, but because of what you look like and what you weigh that person turns around and goes the other way.”
Through it all, she maintained a B average and took advanced-placement classes and a college course. She had the love and support of her mother and her grandparents. And it was enough.
On May 18, she graduated from Rio Rancho High School, and she was stronger. Smarter. Sweeter. But on May 21, she was taken to an emergency room doubled up in pain on her left side. Kidney stones, they speculated.
Doctors found no stones, nothing on her left side.
But they did find something on her right side: a mass the size of a fist wedged in among her liver, intestines, kidney and adrenal gland so far that they have yet to determine what it is or what to do with it. They don’t know yet whether it will spread. They don’t know whether it will kill.
What they do know is that the mass contains blood vessels, which make it risky to cut tissue for a biopsy to determine whether the mass is cancerous.
“If they nick an artery or a vein, she could bleed out,” her mother said. “The surgeon won’t even touch it.”
But it has to come out.
Next week, the Deans will meet with Kassandra’s doctors to decide whether to send her for treatment at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. In preparation for that, a carwash and rummage sale will be held Saturday to help defray what costs Medicaid won’t pay, especially since Jennifer Dean, a single mom, will have to take unpaid family leave from her marketing job to care for her daughter.
“She’s just a nice kid,” her mother says, her voice breaking. “I hate that she is going through this.”
Kassandra Dean, though, keeps it in perspective. It is what it is, she says.
“I do freak out sometimes, but usually it’s when I see that look in my mom’s eyes that she was thinking about it,” she said. “I hate seeing my family that way. If I was on my own, I could handle it better. I’m just really strong.”
Strangest of all is that this mystery mass may have affected her adrenal gland, which plays a role in weight.
“I have to wonder if they had caught this a long time ago maybe I wouldn’t have gone through all the bullying,” she said. “It’s a little frustrating.”
But what she went through, as awful as it was, is also what made her strong, and it is that strength that helps her steel herself at her young age to the uncertainty ahead.
“I am me because of that,” she said.
And she is far more beautiful than any of those bullies could ever be.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, email@example.com.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal